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Loose Ends June 15, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Random.
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Today I am 22 and 50 weeks old. In two weeks time, I will be in Tokyo, having visited the Yukio Mishima museum at the foot of Mount Fuji, enjoying my first meal as a 23 year old.

The week that has just gone wasn’t really my best, I’ve got to say. 3 of the lessons I was supposed to give were without a main Japanese teacher, meaning I had no way of communicating with the kids and therefore no real way to get them to do what I wanted. However, my apathy is such that I just let them do whatever they wanted, occasionally getting them to repeat random English words. If my school is going to dump lessons like that on me, I can’t be bothered to waste my time trying to keep a class in order when I can’t understand what the kids are saying and vice versa. Tomorrow is my last day at the ESIDL (the scene of the aforementioned ‘terror lessons’) and I’m pretty certain that it will be my last. As the term ends on 18th July, I’m not sure if I’ll be sent there again, given there’s not that much time left. However, if I am, rest assured that my lessons will be much more inane than normal, the final shreds of any loyalty/enthusiasm for my job absent by that point. I then have two days at Junior High, which will no doubt be spent on Facebook and heatworld.com, whiling away my time until Thursday and Friday, when I’ll be at the elementary school that I do like. The blight of the week to come? That would be next Sunday. For some reason, I have to go into school and I can guarantee that it’ll be for the whole day. It’s a parent’s day, which means the kids will be in lessons and I’ll probably be dragged out as the foreign monkey. That said, no one has told me what will be happening and so far, that means that it’ll be another day spent on the computer without air conditioning or a will to live. I do get Monday off as compensation, but it does little to calm me from having to split open my weekend to go and spend a non-day in the concrete shell that is my base school.

The week following this is slightly better. I have but three days at Junior High, as I’ve taken the Friday off. In fact, I’ve also taken the Monday (30th June) off too, so I have a nice long weekend surrounding my birthday.

I’ve not really got much else to report. I’ve been watching far too many series, but am now able to catch up with them all, what with most of them having finished recently (Desperate Housewives, Nip/Tuck, Ugly Betty, One Tree Hill, Lost, Heroes and the like). This means I’m able to catch up on things like Spooks that I missed since being in Japan. Other than lots of TV watching, my life has been pretty stagnant.

Yesterday, as I lay in bed, first thing in the morning, I heard someone talking outside. For a short, glorious moment, I thought it was someone talking in English, reminiscent of when I would wake up and hear people talking on the street or my mum talking on the phone, when I was in England. It really made me long for the familiarity of being home. I know that when I get back home and the novelty has worn off, I’ll long for my relatively carefree life in Japan, where not much was expected of me and I had a job and therefore money to do stuff. It will also be hard to go back to living with other people, as I’ve quite enjoyed the whole ‘living alone’ thing. But, I’m also excited about what the future holds. I’m actually longing to get a real job, most of my friends having left University and found gainful employment. OK, they may not necessarily be doing what they want to do for the rest of their lives, but just to have a job that they don’t hate strikes me as something brilliant. Most people’s first question when they learn of my imminent return to the UK is “What will you do once you’re back?” This question is starting to grate a little, especially as I have no clue what I will do. I don’t have a plan, nor do I have any aspirations as of yet. It’s kind of scary and I liken it to the reef in Finding Nemo. Nemo and his father live on the reef and at the edge of the reef is a shelf, where the reef stops and the deep ocean begins. Up until now, my life has been happily on the reef. But with my leaving Japan less than 50 days away, I’m fast approaching the drop off point into the abyss. I know that I will get a job, because things tend to fall into place, but it’s just the not knowing that gets to me. I know that I could stay here for another year, but that idea makes me want to cry, so that’s definitely out. I also tell people that I’m sick of living for the weekends as I do here, but what’s to say that when I get a job in England it won’t put me in exactly the same spot as I am right now?

Anyway, these are just a few of the thoughts flying around my head. Those notwithstanding, there are lots of things that I am looking forward to: my trip to Alton Towers, going to the Edinburgh Festival, seeing ‘The Last Five Years’ in October etc. Also, the other day, while bored at the ESIDL, I looked up mobile phones. Phone shopping always excites me and so looking at the funky new models that I can indulge in when I get back really made me long for home. People think of Japan as being a forerunner in technology, but it’s seriously lacking. Most mobile phones here are chunky and simplistic. I despise my phone and it often gets thrown around in my frustration at its general crapness.

But, once again, I find myself waffling. I promise that the next entry I write will be much more interesting!

Till next time!

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Feel The Rain Fall June 9, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan.
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There is a teacher at my school, let’s call him Thomas. His job is basically to be miserable and grumpy. I wish that I was kidding, but when I was chatting with Martin today, I mentioned that this Thomas seemed perpetually pissed off. Martin looked at me and explained that this was his job and it is, contrary to whatever I or anyone else may say, an integral role in the running of a Japanese High School. The only translation I’ve found for this man is: “The teacher in charge of leading the students”. From this, I’ve ascertained that he is there to show them how to be proper little Japanese people, making sure their bowing is up to standard, that they behave when they’re supposed to and that they can follow the military drills that are somehow part of compulsory education in this country. Earlier on, when we were outside in the baking sun, having just replanted the big concrete flower beds outside the entrance of the school, Thomas threw a total hissy fit because the kids, knackered, sweaty and muddy, didn’t stand up all in time with each other. They then had to practice sitting down on the sand because they apparently weren’t up to scratch on that either. I seriously want to go and tell this guy to take a chill pill, but I’m unable to find a suitable Japanese equivalent…

The weekend that has just passed was spent in Iwakuni. Brooke and I stayed with Matt and Sophie and we ate, drank and played Wii a lot. I got my hair cut and we went out for a meal, before exploring Iwakuni’s nightlife. We met some Marines and asked them if there was anything worthwhile on the outskirts of the base. Apparently not. They said that there was one bar in the centre of town that was worth checking out. So we checked it out. And found that it was closed. We all headed back to Matt and Sophie’s, where we consequently fell asleep. Before midnight. It was dubbed the Best Night Out That Never Was. We all had fun, but didn’t realy do much – it was just a relaxing weekend, all in all.

I’ve just been told that I will be heading back to England sooner than originally anticipated. My supervisor has told me that the chances are, I’ll be flying back on 2nd August. This unfortunately means that I’m going to have to cut my trip with my parents short by one evening so I can be back at my apartment in order to pay the final bills and sort everything out. It’s basically going to be a hectic last couple of weeks. And the thing is, I have most of my weekends from then until now planned, so it’s kind of worrying that there is so little time for me to, once again, pack up my life. And the other reason that it’s so annoying is that it’s not as though I can start packing up too far in advance because I still need everything in my apartment (other than my winter clothes).

On that note, it is definitely getting much hotter here. Luckily my air conditioner is now fixed, but we’re all just waiting for the rainy season to being. After it’s over, it will be much more humid, but I just hope that it’s finished by the time my parents get here. They get in here in about 6 weeks and the rainy season takes about that long to pass and it still hasn’t begun yet. Come on, rain! Isn’t it always the way – when you want it to rain, it never does…

Till next time!

I’ve Grown Accustomed To Japan June 5, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan, Random.
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June has well and truly begun and with it, the start of my wind-down towards my homeward return. I don’t have a full week of Junior High School at all this month, them all being broken up by visits to kindergartens (I have another one of those tomorrow) and elementary schools. In contrast to previous posts, I’m trying to remain positive about my working environment and thinking about how much I will miss being paid to do absolutely nothing all day. That said, the set up here is really starting to grate. The new Vice Principal that I mentioned in an earlier post, Steve. Well, he’s really starting to get on my nerves with his spontaneous requests that I go and teach his student. Just the one – she’s one of the girls at this school with special needs and I really don’t like being dropped into a class with no time to prepare. He asked Julie today if I was free to go to her class and I politely refused – thank God someone else had asked me to go to their classes. Don’t get me wrong – she’s a sweet kid and the lessons with her are easy (especially at the moment when all I have to do is teach her the alphabet). But, Steve swears that she loves my ‘classes’ when, most of the time, she sits looking out of the window or looking ridiculously bored.

Other than that, things are peachy. As I said, there’s a student teacher, Maggie, and today we have 3 classes together. She still hasn’t really told me what I’m going to need to do, other than show pictures of my family using “This is…” and “He/She is…” The rest of the goings-on in the class have been kept from me.

The weather here is starting to perk up – most days it reaches a balmy 26°C and my newly fixed air con has come into play a few times recently. I also tidied my apartment and rearranged some furniture and it’s getting ready for the arrival of my non-JET successor.

There has been a noticeable absence on my blog of “I Should Tell You” posts, and I would like to venture an explanation. When I first got to Japan, lots of things were new and weird. Now, they’re just old and weird and I don’t necessarily see them as noteworthy. One thing I am yet to get to grips with, however, is the WWII-esque air raid siren that goes off in some townships around here to indicate the time. Walking through Iwakuni and the peaceful surrounds of the Kintai Bridge a few weeks back, enjoying the peace and tranquility, I was suddenly wrenched from my stupor by a piercing signal that I associate with the idea of having to run for cover into a flimsily-constructed corrugated metal shed.

I have also been looking at places that I can take my parents to visit, when they make their trip out here in July. We’re going to spend a few days in Okinawa, touring Naha (the prefectural capital) and Kume, an island about 90km off the coast of Okinawa proper. We’re also going to tour Hiroshima, Kyoto and Osaka. The thing with Japan is, it’s a total contradiction to itself. On the one hand it has stunning scenery that has the ability to stop you in your tracks and reflect. Then, on the other, its cities are monuments to the short-termism of post Second World War. Concrete jungles that rise and swamp whatever ancient culture may remain, the cities are tangled messes of overhead wires; narrow back alleys, populated with hostess bars and food stalls, ranging from ramen shops to Western fast food; and matchbox houses, squeezed together on nameless streets. Kyoto, long considered the cultural epicentre of the country and former ancient capital is an ugly 50s abortion of drab greyness and vibrant shrines. I do really like Kyoto (having been there all of one time), but you don’t come to Japan for pretty cities. Gone are the Memoirs of a Geisha-like winding streets, filled with kimono-sporting geiko and pagoda-style housing. Instead, the city throbs around it’s myriad temples and antiques.

It’s not just Kyoto. Osaka has been referred to as having “Blade Runner style skylines” and Tokyo is a swirling mess of neon, department stores and grime. But, as I said before, Japan also has mountains and valleys that will stop you in mid-step. On the slow train from Kuga to Tokuyama, you pass through towns and villages such as Takamizu and Yonekawa and the vistas from the train are just awe-inspiring. The densely forested mountains stretch far into the distance and, dotted between the now flooded rice paddies are archaic little houses, spouting smoke from their chimneys, their owners pottering around their land. I once said that I had been lucky enough to get the best of both worlds: I live in rural Japan and get to experience daily life in such a community. But I can also get away and visit the big urban cities and experience that way of life too. However, had I been placed in Osaka or Kyoto, where would I start to go about exploring “rural Japan”? It’s much too vast a concept to even begin to try and break into. So it was my luck to be placed in Kuga, so I can leave after a year and say that I have lived in the real Japan and not just the ultra-modern, technologically-dependent portrayal that the West receives.

Till next time!

Reviewing The Situation May 28, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Random, Rantings.
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I mentioned in my previous entry this week that my employers were reconsidering their contract with the JET Programme and I was told today that I will officially be the last JET Language Teacher in Kuga. As of next year, they’re hiring someone involved with another programme, who will be paid for the amount of time they spend teaching. Even though part of me is reeling from this news, feeling that I might be somehow to blame for their change of heart, it does make more sense when I have plenty of time to perfect my playing technique of certain Internet games, read the newspaper and the BBC news website, catch up celebrity gossip with heatworld.com, write some emails, research my next trip away, send some text messages, listen to some music on my iPod and laze around a bit. If I was only being paid for the time I spent in the classroom I would 1) be a lot more pro-active in searching out teachers and making them take me to their lessons and 2) be a hell of a lot poorer, given that none of my schools seem to want me in too many classes, fearing that they’ll tire me out.

So yeah – I’m the last one. They also dumped a lot of papers on my desk and asked me to write up all my schedules as far back as I could remember. This may sound like a mammoth task but, in a weird foresight moment, I actually made notes of what lessons I was in, almost every week since I got here. The only ones I can’t write up are my elementary schedules as I throw these away after every visit. That said, I can’t be bothered to write up over 40 weeks worth of school timetables. So they can deal with my having written up those since April.

Tomorrow I’m visiting yet another kindergarten. There will be more poking and punching and headbutting, but it’ll be nice to have a bit more of a relaxed day around those kids than with mine. That said, my week so far hasn’t been too bad and I’m surprised at how quickly it’s gone.

I’m really looking forward to this weekend – I’m going to catch up with my laundry, clean my apartment and then sit and do nothing for the rest of the weekend. It’s going to be great!

Some of the teachers and all of the 3rd graders have just come back from a trip to Osaka and Kyoto. Even though they ignored my not-so-subtle hints that I wanted to go, they did bring me back some goodies and one of the kids assures me that he got me a present that he’ll bring to me on Friday.

Anyway, other than that, I have nothing to report. If it’s possible, I think this latest news regarding my job has made me lose the very last shred of enthusiasm I may once have had. I’m also really pleased that I decided not to stay for another year, as I’m pretty sure they would have shared this piece of information with me now anyway and I would therefore have had it hanging over me for another year.

Till next time!

All Through The Night May 26, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan.
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Another week starts. I’m back at Junior High School, I’m ill and I’m tired. This weekend was my friend, Steph’s birthday and we celebrated it in Fukuoka with a night out full of Mexican food, drunken Japanese guys and karaoke. The thing that made this event stand out, was the sheer length of the festivities and the lead-up thereof. On Friday, after kindergarten, I left Kuga and travelled to Shimonoseki to stay the night with my friends Anita and Daniel. We ate pizza, watched movies and generally had a good Friday evening in.

We woke up relatively early on Saturday and lazed around, eating pancakes and watching a Margaret Cho DVD. We made a relaxed journey into Fukuoka on the bus, most of which I slept through, knowing that the night ahead would be quite intense.

The group of party-goers met and we all made our way to the restaurant; El Borracho. The food was really nice, but the portion sizes weren’t really sufficient for most of us, so we ended up ordering a lot. Drinks weren’t too cheap either, but seeing as this is my one major weekend away this month (by month I mean 21st May-20th June), I figured I could deal with it. That said, as a group we managed to eat and drink our way through 70,000 yen’s worth of stuff – roughly £350.

We then made our way to the Happy Cock, an infamous International Bar in Fukuoka. It was my first time there and, as much fun as the evening as a whole was, it will also be my last. It was basically a sordid, fetid meat market where, if you weren’t trying to dry hump everything in sight, you were in a minority. We stayed there most of the night, gradually decreasing in size. At one point a small breakaway group of us ventured further afield, but returned to see the rest of the night out there. By this time it was about 4:30am and those who were left traipsed to the karaoke place near the Happy Cock. We sat around and sang for 2 hours, covering such classics as “Your Song” by Elton John, “Rooftops” by the Lostprophets and “Go Go Power Rangers”.

Having sated our signing desires and leaving the karaoke to be greeted with daylight and people beginning to go about their Sunday, I decided that enough was enough and so boarded a train and made my way home. I got back to my house just before 11am. Now, that’s the definition of an all-nighter!

Consequently I’m quite tired, but I napped a bit here and there throughout yesterday. The cold has been coming since Friday, so I figure I’ve probably picked it up from one of my kids – the perils of teaching, I suppose.

This week will mainly be spent at Junior High, with one venture to another kindergarten. Today, I met a new student teacher, Maggie. She’s really short and when I first laid eyes on her, I wondered why one of my students was wearing a suit to school. She’s 21, giggles a lot, but seems to be very genki (enthusiastic and up beat) in class, so it probably makes a refreshing change for the kids, who have got used to me.

I also heard tell that my area won’t be going with the JET Programme again. It’s not been confirmed, but I have a meeting about it later on today. If so, it means that I’m going to have to sell my stuff off to other people who are staying in Japan, lest I bequeath all of the things I can’t take home to a stranger for free.

Till next time!

Schadenpenis May 23, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General, Life in Japan.
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I’m just back from kindergarten and I feel violated. Never before has my penis been the object of so much anger and violence. I arrived a little earlier than expected, just so I could get some time in with the kids before my lesson at 10am. The moment the kids saw me they just went mental and started screaming and running around. Most of them eyed me warily to begin with, but once I had picked up one little punk and dangled him upside down for a little bit, they seemed to warm to me a bit. However, the fact that I was able to incapacitate them by picking them up/making them do whatever I wanted, this seemed to open the floodgates of Mitchell-based abuse. It started off with them trying to kancho me. Kancho, if I haven’t explained in previous posts, is the Japanese word for enema and it involves the kids trying to stick their fingers up your ass. I don’t know why they get so much pleasure from trying to do it, but I can safely say that my ass has never warranted so much attention. Ever.

This one little kid was constantly trying to pinch me and when he did, it was actually quite painful. As I was rubbing my bruised arm after another vicious attack, I thought of what had happened a long time ago. When my brother and I were little, we once pushed our way into the bathroom whilst my mum was trying to get some alone time whilst taking a dip. In came the dog as well and started to lick her face. When he got a little too zealous and bit her nose, it was the last straw and my mum grabbed the dog’s snout and bit him back. He never tried to bite anyone again.

I thought of this when the little kid refused to heed my warnings and my stern tellings off. So I reached out and pinched him. Hard. It didn’t seem to phase him that much, but whenever he pinched me again, he would get a harder one in return. He soon left me alone and I feel that maybe I taught him a lesson: Don’t piss someone off who’s 10 times your size.

So the onslaught of attacks on my penis began pretty much after my lesson finished. We played card games and ran around a lot and there was quite a bit of screaming, but I figure that it’s kindergarten, so if they aren’t running around and generally wrecking the place, then I’m not doing my job right. This first kid ran at me and headbutted me right in the crotch. Luckily, he was kind of small and so didn’t do much damage, but this illicited cries of “Chin-chin! Chin-chin!” (roughly translated as “Willy! Willy!”) which then led to more attempts to disable me. They tried headbutting me, grabbing me, poking me, throwing beanbags at me etc. But, when I say “at me”, I actually mean “at a certain part of me”. Them having small wrists and being kind of slow, I was able to deflect a lot of incoming fists and apparatus, but some really hit home. In the end, I just went and sat down and they all tired of me until I stood up again.

Then they climbed on me. This is pretty normal and I can deal with that. But, when one girl grabbed onto my t-shirt for the seventy-eighth time and I heard a sad ripping sound, I pulled her off me and left her to figure out that she’d pissed me off. So she hit me. She almost ripped the shirt off my back, but I was the one to blame. I got into the habit of just leaving them and going elsewhere. I knew if I didn’t, I was going to throw the big Thomas the Tank Engine toy at them and get asked to leave.

That said, I still had an amazing day and, even though I can’t really speak with the kids, when I’m drawing with them or playing games with them, you don’t need to talk. There’s an innate desire in them to communicate and so language is no issue. You just find a way. In fact, that’s been a lot of my time here – learning how to communicate without opening my mouth. It’s surprising how much you can understand just through gestures, facial expressions and someone constantly trying to punch you right in the testes.

Till next time!

Embrace Tomorrow May 22, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General.
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Another week is drawing to a close, marking the end of this month’s visits to elementary schools. All in all, they went well. I enjoy my time there most of the time because I’m left up to my own devices and it involves actual teaching and getting to know the kids. Today, I’m back in my old seat at my desk in Junior High School, and have but one ‘lesson’ to look forward to today. But it’s OK – I’m not going to moan that I want to be utilised, because that would be a lie. All I want to do is sit here and start on my new book. I also have to plan and arrange everything for tomorrow.

As the ALT in Kuga, it is my responsibility to attend, plan and deliver lessons at the town’s Junior High School, two elementary schools and also the 4 kindergartens that are dotted around the place. Unfortunately, these 4 places of education only get the pleasure of my presence twice each in the space of one year. I’ve visited each of them once so far and so not a week will pass in the next four where I don’t visit a kindergarten. One a week! It’s like an extra holiday each week. The thing about my time here is that it’s just a fun day out where I get to be idolised by wee little Japanese people and mourn the fact that I’m probably never going to be able to have one of my own.

There’s one downside, and that’s the fact that I’ll probably have to see my supervisor again. It’s been a good 3 or 4 months since I last laid eyes on him and it’s been a pleasant time. However, I do need to speak with him to try and get the details of my successor and ask him to go about fixing my air conditioner in time for the summer heat. I also want to check that he’s booked me my flight home. So, even though I don’t want to have to chat with him, I’m going to have to at some point.

When I got into school this morning, there was a note on my desk asking me if it was OK for me to find my own way to the kindergarten tomorrow. Seeing as I wasn’t even given a map or taken on a tour of the town when I first got here and was left to my own devices, it’s not OK. I have no clue where it is. I know the rough positioning of all the kindergartens, but no one has ever told me the names. So to be told to go to the Rumbini on 10th June means nothing to me. If they said it’s the one on the road to the supermarket opposite the karaoke place and the dry cleaners, I’d understand and would be able to make my way there. So I’m going to tell them that I don’t know where this one is. That way, they drive me and I also get to see my supervisor and ask him my questions. Everyone’s a winner.

In other news, it’s heating up here. The other day when I was outside playing with my kids at the elementary school I really do like, I just had to stop and sit in the shade. It’s been coming for a while now, but it still feels like the heat just crept up on me. The humidity is also steadily climbing the charts and I know that sooner or later I’m going to spend most days as a sweaty mess. Ah, the perils of living in Japan.

What will help me through it, is knowing that most of my summer will be spent in England, where summers last as long as Pete Doherty’s resolve and most of my time will be spent bemoaning the lack of sunshine. Still, it’ll be nice to have BBQs down by the river again or a nice roast dinner on a Sunday afternoon. Since I’ve been gone, my parents have purchased a boat and so hopefully some time will be spent gadding about on the river, as Englishmen are wont to do.

As I sit here in the staffroom, a gentle breeze stirring the papers on my desk (I was asked to mark these quickly last week, which I duly did as I was told they were needed soon. They’re still here…) I can see my kids being put through their paces down on the running pitch. When my successor arrives, one of the first calls of duty will be to attend the sports festival. I wrote about this weird tradition when I first got here, but will reiterate it now. It isn’t a sports day as we know it. Yeah, it involves running and some other sport like events. But it also involves a tyre drag, human pyramids and dressing up the 3rd grade teachers. All in the heat of the August sun. Mad dogs and Japanese people…

Till next time!

This Is Not Over Yet May 16, 2008

Posted by Mitch in General.
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I started writing a post yesterday, but it just became a big rant like my previous entry, so I decided to delete it. I don’t want people thinking that I’m miserable and so I’m going to be upbeat and focus on the positive. As it is, I am having a good time, it’s just frustrating when I’m mentally ready to go home but I’ve just got to hang around. Feels a little like Purgatory.

The week is drawing to a close and on the whole it’s been a good one. My kids have learnt how to find Japan on a map and the reception to this month’s lesson has been good. As far as I know, this is my penultimate visit to this school and, even though it is the ESIDL, it will still be sad to bid it farewell. I could, on the other hand, be wrong and still have two more visits, but either way, things are starting to wind down.

I should be finding out the details of my successor relatively soon. It was around this time last year that I found out where I would be in Japan. It feels so long ago, doesn’t it. I’ve found the Facebook group for 2008 applicants and they all seem full of the joys of Spring, discussing police check forms, how their interviews went and where they’ve requested to stay. It’s made me positively nostalgic. I remember when it was the be-all and end-all if I heard a snippet of news or a glimpse of a rumour. Someone’s found out where they’re going. Someone has been in contact with their predecessor and the like. I feel quite patronising, gazing back at that time, wishing I’d known then what I know now. But, do you know what? I would gladly live through the stress of applying for the JET Programme, the interview (that went awfully), London Orientation and everything else that happened. My year hasn’t been one long, easy ride where I’ve done nothing but soak up another culture. My plans to get a grip on the language have languished and my eyes have been opened that, even though you know it’ll eb different, nothing can prepare you for just how different. And nothing can prepare you for just how similar it will be as well. I think that was the most off-putting. Despite the heat and humidity and giant bugs, Japan is just like everywhere else. I don’t think a Japanese person would be too happy to hear that as they seem to be clinging to what they class as their cultural identity by their fingernails (cf the rebuilding of dismantled castles in the 1960s). But it’s true. There’s crime. There are deaths. There are births. People get up and go to work. Just like most other places.

If I could go back and change anything, I don’t even think I would. Yes, I’ve been placed in the rural arse-end of Japan, but I’ve met some great people who have made this year abroad what is has been. I feel I’ve experienced the “true Japan”. As I said when I first got here – I can travel away from the countryside and go and see the big cities, but those in the big cities must find it hard to consciously drop themselves in the middle of nowhere. We didn’t have that problem – we were already there.

So, as I count down the weeks until school finishes, I’m actually in a much calmer place. The sun is shining, the kids are laughing downstairs and I’m content that I’ve had the best year abroad that I ever could have had.

Bitch, Bitch, Bitch May 12, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Rantings.
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Having just finished my first day of elementary school since February, I’ve got to say I’m shocked. The new question that I decided to cover with my kids was “Where are you from?” and introduce the English names for countries of the world. First of all, they seemed a little shocked that in England, Korea isn’t known as Kankoku. They also managed to bowl me over by not even being able to point out where Japan was on a map. Now, in their defence, the map was small and they were 9 or 10 years old, but I’m pretty certain that when I was 10 I could find Britain on a map. Once I ascertained that they were, indeed, little retards, the hope of them being able to find the other 9 countries on my list (England, America, Canada, Australia, Korea, Russia, China, France and Germany) diminished rather rapidly. In one of my classes there were two boys who, apart from Germany and France, found everything I asked them to. The others had to refer to their geography books. One of the teachers told me that they were only used to Japanese maps. The irony of this is the fact that these maps have Japan in the middle of the planet, as opposed to Europe and Africa being roughly central. The validity of her statement fell short as I was using Japanese style maps so the kids had no excuse. As I said, I could forgive not knowing where the European countries where – ask any English student to name countries in Asia and I’m sure they’d come up wanting. But to not even be able to find their home country, I found absolutely appalling. As a friend of mine commented; “Are they turning American?”

The school I’m at at the moment is the one that has previously been referred to as the ESIDL (the elementary school I don’t like), and this morning I was mulling over the unfairness of this acronym. That was, of course, until I got there. I don’t know what it is about this school, but the kids annoy me and the teacher grate even more. I got there to find that the shoe locker I had been assigned had disappeared from existence, presumably never to appear again and that the desk that had once been mine had been moved and so I had to wait around for the first 5 minutes or so whilst the headteacher and the vice principal searched the staffroom for somewhere for me to put my stuff. It happens to be by the staffroom phone, so if I’m not in my seat when someone wants to make a phone call, they just sit in my seat and I have to wait for them to finish their conversation before being allowed to “take a pew”. They also insist on asking me every month what I intend to do the following month. I don’t plan anything that far in advance and so, almost every month they ask, I tell them I have no plan. The only time I did feel compelled to make up a plan on the spot, I didn’t keep to it and none of the teachers remembered anyway. But this time, I had to have a meeting with the 3rd grade teachers. Now, one of these women pissed me off a while ago. I was explaining the rules to a game. It was really simple. Even in English the rules are simple and if they were explained to me in Japanese, they’re so simple that I would probably understand. But this one woman looked at me, then turned, laughing and said to the class “Well, I don’t understand him!” The lack of her even attempting to provide a joint effort angered me more than her stupidity, so I just launched into the game before I punched her in the ear. As it turns out, it was so easy I didn’t even need to try and explain it. So today, when I have to have a meeting with her, you can understand that I’m not jumping in the air at the prospect. She came over to me, spoke a lot of really fast Japanese that I wouldn’t have even understood had it been slower, and then asked if I understood. I told her I didn’t and she proceeded to do exactly the same. So this time I told her that I did understand and she seemed to take the hint and left. From the bits that I vaguely understood and the random English words she inserted, I took it that she was criticising the lesson I had with her this morning (not the one with an easy game and also not the geography quiz lesson – just an introduction lesson for the little’uns). I know that I’m not a trained teacher and she is, but I’ve got to say, I thought it was a little rich that she would tell me how to teach English when she clearly has very little to put forward herself. The fact that the lesson I gave to her class this morning has been praised by other teachers is neither here nor there, but again, I wanted to hit her. In the ovary.

Aside from being an angry young man, I don’t have that much to report. The past weekend was great – I did very little apart from sit in my house and work my way through the Star Wars epic. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch all 6, but have Return of the Jedi still to watch. But doing nothing but watching movies and cleaning my apartment was a brilliant use of my time. What with Korea and all my other numerous plans before then, I haven’t really had a weekend to myself. I realise that this is probably because I want to make the most of what time I have left here, but it also helps me to save money and lets me get the most out of my weekend (i.e. I get to sleep in!)

Right, on that note I should go. I’ve got a bit of ironing to do and then I’m heading into Iwakuni.

Till next time!

A Seoul New World May 7, 2008

Posted by Mitch in Travel.
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I’m back at school after possibly the best trip away I’ve had since I’ve been here in Japan. On Friday morning a group of intrepid adventurers set out from Tokuyama with a common goal – to have a great time in the capital of South Korea. Arriving in the mid-afternoon, we made our way to the hostel that we had booked. Situated near Hongik University, StayKorea was basically just a house. But it was comfortable, clean and owned by an amazing couple. Just to jump forward a little; as we left, everyone agreed that it was one of the best places we’ve ever stayed in.

We caught the subway into Meyong-Dong where the streets were abuzz with people. Luckily, it seemed we wandered into Seoul just as lots of festivals were taking place. Cue busy streets, packed markets and more food stalls than you could possibly hope to visit in a few days. As we strolled the streets and browsed the shops, we came upon two Korean schoolgirls who came and introduced themselves to us. After marvelling at their good grasp of the English language (especially in contrast to the kids we teach in Japan) we got them to lead us around the area a little. After they had tired of the tourists, they left and we settled into a roadside cafe to enjoy seafood pancakes, mussels and the local tipple – soju. We then headed up to the Seoul Tower and looked out over the city at night. Whilst we were there, there was a laser show, which we all enjoyed before heading back down. Lucy, Daniel and I then headed to the IceBar where we enjoyed cocktails in big blocks of ice, whilst dressed in furry ponchos and gloves. All in all, a great first day.

Despite the early hour at which we had to rise on the Friday, Saturday did not herald a well-earned lie in. Instead, we were up at around 5:30am once again in order to clamber onto a bus and drive an hour north to the border between the two Koreas. First of all, we visited a viewpoint where you could look out over the demarcation zone (DMZ) towards North Korea. A short journey down the road and we were over 70m below ground in a tunnel dug by the North Korea troops. It was supposed to be a tunnel all the way to Seoul in order for another attack to take place, but it was discovered before it could get too close. We then had lunch at a traditional Korean restaurant and everyone agreed that the food was amazing. It was around this time that I decided that I liked Korean food much more than Japanese.

After lunch, we changed tours and were driven to Camp Bonifas and the Joint Security Area. There, we got to see the two sets of border guards. Apparently, the rules for the southern side are much stricter – no camera bags, no gestures or pointing at the northern guards etc. But we were told that the North Korean tourists are allowed right up to the actual demarcation line. We were ushered into a building where meetings sometimes take place and were allowed to step over the line and into North Korea. Technically I can now say that I’ve trodden on North Korean soil, so that was a highlight. We then stood on a pagoda-type thing and took photos of the North Korean border guard watching us relentlessly and then got back on the bus. Picking up some North Korean wine on the way, we headed back to Seoul and got ready for a night out. Unfortunately, most of it was spent with a group of people I didn’t know. They were nice and friendly, but for most of the evening we did karaoke, which seemed a tad too Japanese for my liking.

The next day Lucy, Daniel and I set out to do a spot of sightseeing. We walked around the palace grounds of Deoksugung. Even though it was extremely Western, it was nice to wander through a park and afterwards we saw the changing of the guard outside. That evening, we all met up and went to a cultural performance called Miso (which means ‘smile’ in Korean). After the show, we were all in high spirits, fuelled by the fact that we had our photos taken with the performers. After dinner, the group split with Lucy, Daniel, Brooke and I heading towards Itaewon for a rather raucous night out.

The following day was Monday. We wandered pretty aimlessly around the city and saw Dongdaemun, which was an ancient city gate that was burnt down recently. After sampling the sights and sounds of the hiSeoul concert, I headed home to listen to some Wagner and go to bed. One of the reasons for the early night was the fact that Asiana Airlines had rung us that day and told us that they’d moved us to the early morning flight and that they’d refund part of our money. Upon returning home, I was informed that our flights had been changed back to the original time and that in order to make up for the inconvenience, they were bumping us up to business class.

So, yesterday, we headed to the airport, enjoyed the business lounge and marvelled at how little difference there was between business and economy, once on the plane. The flight was uneventful and I got home safely last night.

Now, I’m sitting at school, waiting for the day to end. Going away and coming back has really knocked me out of joint and the last thing I want to do is spend another 10 weeks in a dead end job. That notwithstanding, it is only 10 weeks, which does make me slightly happier. Seoul is my favourite city of places outside of Japan that I’ve visited since I’ve been here. The animosity between the Japanese and the Koreans is infamous, but I’ve not held back. I told all of my teachers that I absolutely loved Seoul and was kind of sad to come back. My teachers being quite young and chilled told me that they too loved Seoul and so totally understood. They also empathised with the ‘coming back to school’ blues, but seemed pleased that I’d made the effort to bring them back some Korean chocolate. In return, Julie presented me with a Ritter Sport – she’d heard that they were made in Germany and told me that she hoped it reminded me of there. See, that’s the thing – everyone here is so nice, but the job is just so mind-numbingly boring that it makes me want to leave. But, as I said: 10 weeks to go before school ends. How strange. This year does seem to have flown by, but then I suppose they always do.

Till next time!